Sunday, December 04, 2005

Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism

N.B.: I am not Richard Chappell, nor was meant to be. I'm Charles Johnson, and I normally post at Rad Geek People's Daily; I've volunteered to help out a bit while Richard is away. My interests wander a lot, especially around the areas of metaphysics, philosophy of logic, and ethical and political theory; here's a chance to combine a bit of all three. I think that we have some pretty substantial ethical obligations toward non-human animals (hereafter: "animals"; sorry, taxonomic correctness). In fact, I think those obligations are substantial enough that we're ethically bound, among other things, to stop slaughtering cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. for food. I can't say, though, that I'm particularly thrilled with the state of the philosophical debate, and in particular I'm not particularly thrilled with a lot of the arguments that try to defend something like my conclusion. Part of the problem is a problem that's general in a lot of applied ethics: the desire to make arguments that seem to be compatible with a lot of very different philosophical or meta-ethical views tends to end up with arguments that are actually compatible with only a very narrow view of what the world contains. (That's because, by design, anything that looks too philosophically murky or controversial is pared away in order to make the argument's appeal broad enough. But what if the world really does have philosophically murky or controversial features?) As a chief example, take the argument over so-called "marginal cases" and the ethical significance of belonging to a particular species.

Here's stereotype of how the dialectic goes. Quid tells Quo that she should give up meat, and when Quo says "I'd rather not; I like meat", Quid tells her that it's cruel to slaughter your fellow creatures for your own benefit (especially when the benefit is so trivial as getting a meal that you like better). After all, nobody would think that it's O.K. to kill and roast your fellow humans, even if it turns out that roast man-flesh is a truly delicious meal. Quo isn't convinced; she argues that slaughtering humans and slaughtering animals is different, and when Quid demands to know why, Quo remarks that humans have some distinctive mental capacity that gives humans a direct moral standing that animals, like plants and rocks, don't have. (Which property Quo picks isn't relevant here. Common candidates include self-consciousness, reflective reason, abstract thinking, moral agency, and some other stuff.)

Quid comes back with the famous "Argument from Marginal Cases". There are a lot of different ways to gloss the argument, depending in part on the details of the pro-meat argument that it's responding to, but here's a schematic gloss: pick any mental property that you like that might explain a difference in moral standing, and tag it Morally Relevant Rationality (MRR) for convenience. No matter what property you pick, one of two things will be true. Either (1) all humans will have MRR, but many or most animals will have it too (e.g.: responsiveness to pain, formation of desires), in which case MRR will be too broad to justify slaughtering animals; or else (2) no animals will have MRR, but there will be at least some humans who don't have it either, in which case MRR will be too narrow to live up to our expectations of a rational ethical theory. Horn (1) of the dilemma is clear enough; to account for horn (2), Quid points out that for pretty much any distinctive mental property that you can find in paradigmatic cases of humanity (healthy adults with no congenital defects and a normal upbringing), there will be at least some "marginal cases" -- infants, the comatose, people with brain lesions, the severely mentally retarded, feral children, etc. -- who don't have it now, or lost it, or never had it to begin with. But any ethical theory that entails that we could ethically slaughter infants, the comatose, people with brain lesions, the severely mentally retarded, feral children, etc. for food is monstrously wrong. Therefore there are no reasonable candidates for MRR that do the work anti-vegetarians want them to do. Therefore, put down that steak.

The argument's attractive because, among other things, it saves you from the hard philosophical work of having to respond to each concrete suggestion for MRR, or having to engage with the specific arguments for the connection between MRR and moral standing. After all, if the dilemma really does cover all plausible candidates then Quid can use the argument as a schematic for a response to any candidate for MRR and any account of the connection between it and moral standing. The problem, though, is that there's a perfectly good response to the Argument from Marginal Cases on the record -- the call it Argument from Species Normality -- and, as far as I know, ethical vegetarians in the literature haven't yet successfully responded to it. In fact, as far as I know, ethical vegetarians in the literature haven't even understood it.

Here's how the response goes. Quo concedes that Quid has pointed out a genuine difficulty. But, she says, there's a way out. Here's how. Take horn (2) of the dilemma, and choose some mental property that paradigmatic humans have but animals don't. It's true that not all humans have that property. But there is another, closely related property that all and only humans (including all "marginal cases") do have: each and every one is human. This may seem trifling or crude, but suppose that Quo goes on to point out that being human means (among other things) being a member of a species whose paradigm cases have MRR, that is, one of the kind of creature for whom it is normal to have MRR. So even though there will be humans who individually lack MRR, Quo contends that enjoying the human form of life -- even if, in a particular case, the mental faculties that are involved in that form of life are undeveloped or frustrated or damaged (perhaps irreparably) you are obligated to treat them differently from the way you would treat an animal; for animals the place occupied by MRR isn't empty or inaccessible; it just doesn't exist.

The canonical vegetarian response to the Argument from Species Normality seems to be to misunderstand it. One way to misunderstand it is to bring out the doctrine ethical individualism, as if it explained anything; the idea is that "being a member of the same species as x, y, and z" is a pure Cambridge relation; why should that external relation have any burlier ethical consequences than "having the same name as x" or "being the third person born after y." Why should having these kind of "properties" have any ethical bearing at all? Wouldn't making ethical distinctions based on them be a case of arbitrary (and therefore unjustifiable) group privilege? (People who like ghastly neologisms sometimes call this "speciesism," by analogy with "racism" and "sexism.")

But this is a mistake, and I think it's a mistake that's no less crude for being so common. Making it may be the result of making some other mistakes about the logical form of statements about living creatures and the natural kinds they belong to, of the sort discussed by Michael Thompson in The Representation of Life; as Thompson shows, philosophers tend to try to understand statements about living creatures and their distinctive forms of life with a much too narrow idea of what sorts of logical features statements can have, and they tend to systematically get things wrong by excluding, or ignoring, the kinds of teleological facts that Thompson calls "aristotelian categoricals." For example, consider the natural-historical statement, "the domestic cat has four legs and a soft coat of fur." This is a true general statement. And it is not to be refuted by pointing "But look at poor Tibbles, who has been shaved and maimed in a tragic accident!" The reason that it is true is not that all domestic cats have four legs and a soft coat of fur (poor Tibbles doesn't). Nor is it that some or many or most or even the overwhelming majority of domestic cats have these features. (Even if some mad scientist released a virus that caused all the domestic cats in the world to permanently shed their fur coat, "the domestic cat has a soft coat of fur" would still be true.) It's that cats are the kind of creature that has four legs and soft fur under normal conditions, even if tragic circumstances have altered those conditions for some cats, or even for all cats temporarily. (If they altered conditions for all cats permanently, that might constitute a change in the form of life for cats as such. But that's not important here.)

These distinctions make a difference. In particular, it's important to see how aristotelian categoricals make a difference for what we can say about individual members of the species. They make a difference with respect to value, in obvious cases. If Tibbles has two legs, that's a tragedy; it's something wrong with poor Tibbles. If I have two legs, that's normal; that's how humans are. The fact that we recognize my two-leggedness as normal and Tibbles' two-leggedness as a defect is tied up with the fact that I'm supposed to have two legs and that Tibbles is supposed to have four. And that's a biological fact about Tibbles herself, not just a Cambridge relation to other members of her species. It goes similarly with humans who suffer from a cognitive defect. The point of the appeal to normality isn't relational or statistical; the point is to show how all human beings, each and every one of them, individually has a particular intrinsic property. That property isn't just sharing a species with other humans who do have MRR. It's having, individually, a faculty for MRR (whatever that may be), and we're supposed to be able to exercise it, even if in particular cases that faculty is not yet developed, or inactive, or frustrated, or irreparably damaged. A human being that can't comprehend language or engage in reflective reasoning has a something wrong with her (that's what calling it a "disability" or a "defect" means); a pig that can't comprehend language or engage in reflective reasoning is just living how the pig lives.

(Actually that's not quite right. An infant that can't understand language or reflectively reason isn't abnormal or defective. But that's no more difficult to deal with than the fact that people who are sleeping don't exercise MRR while they're unconscious. The normal condition in the human form of life is that infants will develop MRR over time. Not so pigs.)

I think this is also closely related to the other common response to the Argument from Species Normality -- what we might call the Argument from Freak Intelligence. Here's how James Rachels put it (in "Darwin, Species, and Morality", Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Tom Regan and Peter Singer, eds., p. 100):

This idea--that how individuals should be treated is determined by what is normal for their species--has a certain appeal, because it does seem to express our moral intuition about defective humans. "We should not treat a person worse merely because he has been so unfortunate," we might say about someone who has suffered brain damage. But the idea will not bear close inspection. Suppose (what is probably impossible) that a chimpanzee learned to read and speak English. And suppose he eventually was able to converse about science, literature, and morals. Finally he wants to attend university classes. Now there might be various arguments about whether to permit this, but suppose someone argued as follows: "Only humans should be allowed to attend these classes. Humans can read, talk, and understand science. Chimps cannot." But this chimp can do those things. "Yes, but normal chimps cannot, and that is what matters." Is this a good argument? Regardless of what other arguments might be persuasive, this one is weak. It assumes that we should determine how an individual is to be treated, not on the basis of its qualities, but on the basis of other individuals’ qualities. This chimp is not permitted to do something that requires reading, despite the fact that he can read, because other chimps cannot. That seems not only unfair, but irrational.

I think Rachels is obviously right here; it would be wrong to treat the hyperintelligent chimp that way on those grounds. (A fortiori, it would also be wrong to slaughter a hyperintelligent pig and eat it. The fact that normal swine are not as intelligent as human beings wouldn't be a reasonable ground for denying it a right to life.) Species membership isn't a good grounds to make a distinction in cases of freak intelligence. But he's just wrong to draw the conclusion that the case of humans with cognitive defects has to be symmetrical with the case of animals with freak intelligence. Perhaps the problem is that Rachels is still thinking of the appeals to species or kind as if they were just appeals to membership in a set with some particular defining characteristic. If that's all that was at stake, then trying to make an ethical distinction based on it surely would be arbitrary. But that's nota all; the Argument from Species Normality gains whatever force it has by appealing to faculties or potentialities that each individual humans, as a human, has. Think of it this way: a pig with freak intelligence has, ex hypothesi, manifested MRR. Actuality entails potentiality, so the pig has the faculty for MRR and it makes sense to demand that it get the same moral level of consideration you give to your fellow humans (whatever the right level for that is). But that does not entail that you also have to demand that animals with normal cognitive abilities for their species get the same level of consideration you give to your fellow humans with severe cognitive defects (whatever the right level for that is). Non-actuality doesn't entail non-potentiality, and you have to distinguish between the cases where a faculty is present but unexercised, damaged, frustrated, undeveloped, etc. and those in which there isn't any faculty to lament the damaging of at all. And one of the reasons that you would give for making distinctions of this sort just is that there's a difference between a healthy adult pig with the cognitive abilities of a pig and an adult human with the cognitive abilities of a pig. If you aren't approaching the world of life with a rich enough conceptual framework to recognize these kind of teleological facts, then you probably need to enrich your conceptual framework before you can sensibly deal with the notion of goodness at all.

Now, is it true that the distinctively human faculty for MRR, whatever that is, even if it's not being exercised, and even if it can't be, in a particular case, really does make for a burly difference in moral standing between humans and animals? Probably, but is it enough of a difference to justify slaughtering and eating the animals even though you'd never consider treating "marginal case" humans that way (and would rightly be punished harshly for doing so)? I doubt that it is true. But I think to give a good reply to the Argument from Species Normality, you'll need some kind of argument that specifically engages with the details of the particular faculty that's suggested to play the role of MRR, and the details of the account that's given to connect it to moral standing, in order to show that it doesn't make enough of a difference, or doesn't make the right kind of difference, that's needed to justify the incredible suffering inflicted by the meat industry. Trying to avoid the messy part of the argument by skipping over the details and making an appeal to marginal cases just won't get you anywhere that you should want to go.


  1. I think the human faculty that matters in this case is totemism. It's uncivilized not to abide by any food taboos whatsover, and it's unsophisticated to expect everybody to share the same taboos.

    How do we explain Arthur Dent's aversion to eating the Ameglian Major cow? Rule #1 of food avoidance: Don't eat anything that talks to you.

    Rule 1a, Don't eat anything that's spoken for, is equally binding, but to be bound by it one must be in communication with whomever is doing the speaking for, and one must accept the speaker's authority in every sense.

    Rule 1b, Don't eat anything that's spoken against, is a logical extension of 1a.

    Rules 1a and 1b, taken by themselves, invite us to imagine whether there can be food taboos in the absence of a totemic relationship. I believe they are subordinate because a purely rational avoidance of certain foods wouldn't be a proper taboo. If we adhere to the doctrine that authoritative statements can or should be rationally questioned, we cannot do so from within the totemic relationship, even if, in practice, we question authority while we avoid eating certain foods.

    Is it ethical to ask other people to share your taboos on the grounds that theirs don't stand to reason? Of course not. If you believe your food avoidances are particularly reasonable and not particularly totemic in origin, then the equation changes somewhat. Assuming you had the most rational diet imaginable--which seems a little far-fetched, but just assuming--, would it then be ethical to ask others to violate their convictions for the sake of a rational diet? If it were just a case of physical suffering or discomfort, we could say that the end result might be worth any temporary displeasure. But this isn't the primary argument of the vegan ethicist, who is more concerned about kindness than reasonableness. Yet the vegan's proposed diet must be defended on the basis of reason, lest we suspect it of being a case of a rather broad sort of totemism. or just plain arbitrary.

    So let's ask, Why don't we show kindness to eggplants? Putting it another way, if we could be cruel to eggplants, would it be wrong? I think so. Is it possible that we have some doubt about whether it's possible to be cruel to eggplants?

    Is it wrong to destroy any form of life for no good reason? Why? Because somebody else might have a use for it? That seems pretty after the fact.

    I'll provisionally stand by the intuition that it's wrong to destroy any organism for no good reason. What's a good reason to destroy an organism, then? To eat it, naturally. If you have good reason to suspect that the organism you want to eat is capable of suffering, then you ought not treat it cruelly. Perhaps you should also avoid eating it. But if you would also avoid eating the Ameglian Major cow, then there's obviously something more to your food avoidance than you're letting on. Whether we should avoid eating certain organisms, and whether we should avoid treating animals cruelly may be two very different questions.

  2. Nicely said. One problem that anti-meat types have is that their arguments don't ring true and as a result, most people they are trying to convince just discard them.

    Many good positions suffer from bad arguments that actually convince people not to listen.

    Nice to see someone thinking through a set like this.

  3. Ok, two (main) questions:

    Firstly, why does the fact that the paradigm cases of an object-type have a certain property commit us to saying that all objects of that type have that property? (e.g because paradigmatic humans are morally relevant, all humans are morally relevant) - won't this commit you to (for example) the idea that all humans have the property of 'having two arms' because paradigmatic humans do?

    Now, I suspect that you'll reply that I've missed the point of your argument since I've not mentioned any of your "aristotelian categoricals" - the paradigm human is defined by some human telos.

    But the notion of "aristotelian categoricals"/"telos" conflicts wildly with a modern scientific worldview, and we can hardly justify redeeming it because it achieves some cuddly ethical conclusions. (Second key question) Don't you have a give an independent reason to believe in these categoricals first, and then you may be entitled to refer to them to establish conclusions elsewhere.

    Put simply, you surely can't justify a controversial conclusion by appealing to a more controversial premise (and nor justify the premise because it leads to your favoured conclusion).

  4. Alex, I'm somewhat discomfited by the Aristotelian categoricals myself, but as a non-philosopher I'm not sure how qualified I am to comment on them at length. On the other hand, it seems like we might be able to excise them from the argument in a straightforward way.

    It seems like the point of horn (2) is not so much the actual moral conclusion as needing a way to stop ourselves from haphazardly killing humans for little reason because they may lack MMR. After all, maybe having MMR right now really is the only thing imparting an organism moral status and it's perfectly ok to do whatever you please with something lacking it; we'd just like to avoid the hairy-seeming conclusion that killing (at least some) people for little benefit is ok. Further, without getting into MMR's details specifically, it certainly seems like all the candidates are somewhat murky, hard-to-test properties. And of course I wouldn't want to kill something that had MMR, so it probably makes sense *as a matter of policy* to avoid killing humans for little gain, as there's no way I can know for sure that some particular human lacks it.

    Now, this doesn't save you from the point of horn (2), but it seems to me to blunt it to well within acceptable limits.

  5. So if a dog only has two legs, it still has this species proprty: supposed-to-have-to-legs. You can call it potential-two-leggedness if you want, but it is the sort of potential that can never be realized in the actual world.

    So if, for example, we had (perhaps as the result of a promise) an obligation to provide a set of winter leggings for a typical dog, that would involve and obligation to create four leggings. For this dog, however, despite its potential-two-leggedness, you'd only make two.

    So it seems to me that it is still possible to make a general case against MRR unless there is a plausibe standard that is about potentials of this kind - that is, potentials that can never be realized. While realizable-potentials may be morally relevant, I seriously doubt that unrealizeable-potentials are. If that's right, then this appeal to species normality doesn't really seem to help.

  6. D'oh. Of course my previous post was supposed to be that the two-legged dog had potential-four-leggedness.

  7. [Alex Melonas writes in:]

    It seems to me that the Argument from Species Normality begs the question because you are treating X as though X possesses a quality/characteristic that X, objectively, does not. Therefore, Quo’s (the hypothetical flesh eater) counter-argument, i.e., “enjoying the human form of life – even if, in a particular case, the mental faculties that are involved in that form of life are undeveloped or frustrated or damaged (perhaps irreparably) you are obligated to treat [“marginal cases”] differently from the way you would treat an animal; for animals the place occupied by MRR isn't empty or inaccessible; it just doesn't exist,” DOES NOT logically follow. Use of an “Aristotelian categorical” to respond is simply an “Aristotelian leap”; to wit, it moves from an objectively verifiable characteristic to telos, which, in the final analysis, is sophism because it fails, by design, to respond to the initial logical problem: How do you justify treating X as if X had a “potentiality” that X, objectively, does not have?

    [end quote]


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